Descent Into Mental Illness
A daughter’s search to understand
Nyna Giles, author of The Bridesmaid’s Daughter, shares a poignant moment with her mother when she was a child.
Pound Ridge resident Nyna Giles grew up hearing stories about her mother’s glamorous life: Carolyn Schaffner Scott had escaped her small-town Ohio life in 1947 and moved to Manhattan where she become a top Ford model photographed by the likes of Richard Avedon and Francesco Scavullo. Staying at the legendary Barbizon Hotel for Women, she became best friends with Grace Kelly, who lived in the room next door. Together they explored the city, frequently attending the ballet and theater; later she was a bridesmaid at Kelly’s wedding to Prince Ranier in Monaco. But these enchanting stories didn’t mesh with Giles’s memories of her mother, who became increasingly isolated at the family’s Long Island estate and eventually moved into a homeless shelter for mentally ill women.
“People knew something was wrong with my mother, but no one did anything,” Giles recalls, noting that she missed entire years of school because her mother deemed her too ill to attend. “My mom had given up her modeling career and left Manhattan to live in Long Island. I was the third daughter, and when I was born, my mom needed a C-section and a hysterectomy which sent her straight into menopause.” It wasn’t until decades later that Giles discovered the heartbreaking truth that her birth had been the turning point in her mother’s life from which she never recovered.
The Bridesmaid’s Daughter, which Giles wrote with Eve Claxton, is the result of her search for a better understanding of her mother’s life. She admits she was concerned about negative reactions to her story from people who don’t understand mental illness. “I was afraid they would be quick to judge me and my family without reading my story in its entirety.” Indeed, in 1989, she was shocked to find her mother’s sad saga splashed on the front page of a tabloid at the checkout counter where she was buying groceries. The headline: “Former Bridesmaid of Princess Grace Lives in Homeless Shelter.” Her painful and private family secret had suddenly become very public.
A few years earlier, her mother had been brought to a psychiatric hospital, babbling and incoherent. A doctor suggested she was mentally ill, perhaps a paranoid schizophrenic. “I knew that my mother was struggling, but until that moment, no one had ever mentioned mental illness of any kind. I had no understanding of it.” The family couldn’t keep her at the psychiatric hospital unless she was a danger to herself or others. “Over the course of my life, I have hated that tired, worn-out phrase,” Giles says. “This is the frustration that people with seriously mentally ill family members endure.”
The shelter was meant to be a temporary measure. “But my mom refused to take any medication. When the staff tried to arrange for housing, she wouldn’t participate. Family members offered her places to stay, but she turned everyone down—including me. No one ever explained to us that her actions were in keeping with her diagnosis. The most seriously mentally ill don’t realize they are sick, so they won’t accept help and treatment.”
Giles did what she could for her mother, visiting frequently and arranging for her meals to be paid for at a nearby diner. After a decade at the shelter, she developed a heart condition, and Giles could finally move her into a nursing facility, where she died at age 79 in 2007. But her death didn’t end Giles’s search for an explanation how her mother’s fairy-tale life had turned into such a nightmare.
Finally, her research led her to Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, chair of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center. After hearing her story and history, he suggested her mother was not schizophrenic, but instead showed symptoms of postpartum psychosis, a severe psychiatric condition that sets in during the first month after birth, often leading to depression, paranoia, delusions, and hallucinations. “When my mom started to get sick, it wasn’t understood as it is today. If she could have been treated, her life—and mine—would have been very different.”
“What my mother needed was an advocate, someone to take charge of her life and intervene at every level,” Giles continues. “I was so completely uneducated about the causes and effects of mental illness. I simply didn’t have the tools I needed to be that person on her behalf. But I can advocate for others, like her, now. If I can give them a voice and the courage to speak up, then the last four and a half years of writing this story will have been truly worth it.”
Photo: Carolyn Schaffner Scott in happier times before postpartum psychosis destroyed her life.